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Musicians: Your struggle is not the consumer’s problem (Sorry, not sorry)

A day in the life of a low/middle tier touring musician.  

We drove from Stowe, Vermont to Syracuse, New York to play a one-hour show, sleep in someone’s apartment who was a fling of the rhythm guitarist’s; then we drove back an hour to play another show…then drove back to Vermont.  

Along the way, we ate poorly, slept poorly, and at times drank too much one night, and ended up with a week-long hangover (thanks to the first two grievances I mentioned).  We lugged heavy equipment into clubs that required musicians to walk everything up 4 flights of narrow stairs.  We’re talking giant cabs, heavy drums and hardware, banners, merch, etc.  Then, after playing a show we worked hard to craft, we tore everything down, walked it back down the stairs, received an insulting amount of money, and drove to the next venue hours away.  

Energy drinks and carbs were our only comfort.


Yes.  That’s right.  I think that is good.  

What’s not good is the modern-day whinging of musicians fighting for their day in the sun.  The performative dramatics of an online forum; a youtube comment section, the bellyaching that goes into the ether and cures another dope of their happiness.  

Go west, young man.  Actually, Go anywhere but near the happy, healthy, idealistic deep lovers of music.  You’re going to get your scent on us and kill the whole thing. 

And let’s be clear here: Us musicians do have grievances and gripes…and also tropes that are so fitting of the stereotypical of the working musician.  However, we’ll stick to the externalities today…and tie ourselves to the whipping post for our vices in a later article.  

Money is scarce.  Life isn’t fair.  And the general public craves vapidity in their top artists.  It’s high-fructose stuffed candy.  It really is.  Don’t get me started on being a fly on the wall in the songwriting rounds of Nashville.  To summarize the general bent, a hat full of country mad-libs is chosen; and the end result is a song that sounds like butchered George Strait classics about a tractor, a good woman, and one too many beers.  

And I absolutely love it; just as much as the next simple-minded dolt.  

This may sound contradictory but bear with me: Our sorrows and hardships are not the problems of our potential listeners.  They didn’t put the love for music into our hearts.  Hell, we can barely consider ourselves responsible for that decision.  It’s most definitely been foisted upon us.  Still, we chose to foster it, suffer for it, use it for therapy, and use it for sanctuary from a passionately judgmental world.  It’s been a gift since the first guitar chord or sung syllable.  

Why is it all of a sudden ash in the mouth when there’s a little hardship involved?  There are two reasons (weak ones at best) that I’ve gleaned from fellow musicians; and from my own incredibly fragile ego.  

  1. We want to make money from the endeavor but it seems like we can’t make enough money to live on without compromises.
  2. After a while, what is required is too much for us.  We can’t take another tour with an achy stomach, sleeping in the van, showering minimally, driving to some venue where no one knows your name and the promoter knows only one thing: he’s trying to screw you for a dollar. 

Let’s start with the second premise: Then quit.  Don’t complain and put yourself through “hell”.  Quit.  You don’t have to stop playing music.  You might not even have to give up the “dream” of being a full-time musician.  The mental clutter of a prolonged half-hearted temper tantrum is what will kill not only your dream but also your ability to use that wonderful creativity of yourself to pivot, adjust, strategize, execute, etc.  I once toured with a band where we did just that: We complained about the touring agency routing poorly and lacking motivation…but those complaints never led to a brainstorming session.  We could barely brainstorm how to present these issues to the head of the agency, let alone carve our own way out of the stagnant hell that is… hoping a human comes to their senses on their own.  

There’s nothing effective about this approach (or lack thereof).  

Either live the bass cab over the 5 flights of stairs or don’t. Either eat a Pop Tart for dinner, 4 nights out of the week, or don’t.  Just don’t sit there and make the tour more miserable for everyone else.  It’s one of the most vulnerable times for a band.  Everyone is at least a little on edge.  Even my easygoing self struggled with moments of sadness and feeling alone.  If that sadness would’ve ever reached the point where I became a miserable lump on the way to Virginia to play for piss poor money from a door deal that obviously won’t turn a profit…you’re GD right I would’ve quit the band.  

The first point may be the most nuanced but it’s a pain point everyone who wants to work as a musician would do well to visit once and revisit often.  

When a musician says they love music, they’d do well to ask themselves if they know what love is.  When I speak of love here,  I’m referring to unconditional love.  The kind that every messianic figure in human history reportedly had for their followers and detractors.  The kind of love that a mother has for their incredibly “handsome” child *heavy sarcasm here*.  

See, if you want to be a successful working musician, your success hinges on providing so much value to your growing following, that they will part with their hard-earned money.  That value you’re providing is a labor of love.  The bare bones of what you are will resonate with people.  That’s not even a question.  The labor a musician has to take to is refining the music, taking out what doesn’t work in service of what makes your heart pound if your ears (remember, you’re the audience too, if you don’t love what you do…why should anyone else?).  That labor is also in making sure the sound and image translates.  Be honest with yourself about the music you love: be able to see how you’re being sold so you can sell others.  The consumer doesn’t know why they love something.  At least not the science of it.  They just know what they love.  Your pains to get there are not their problem.  The rewards will come if you put your loving effort into giving them the kind of value worth paying for.  

Give them an experience they can only get from you.  If they wanted a complaint, well…that’s an incredibly cheap commodity to find on the internet with less value perceived in it by the second. 


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